Hello, fellow Audiolics, Welcome to another meeting of Audiolics Anonymous, our support group for the insatiably TWEAKED. Your assignment for today will be to review last month's article if you want to make any sense out of this one. Matter of fact, review my last 20 articles before proceeding by going to the Archives. How's that for a homework assignment?
Okay, now that you are done with the review, we can proceed. The main thesis last month was that no matter how good the individual components are, it's how they interact that gets you to the final sound. I've heard relatively cheap systems that sound great, and "super-expensivo" mega-bucks ones that sound like doggy doo.
The secondary conclusion was that you either have to learn from your many mistakes to obtain a great system, or take a shortcut and get a great dealer who's already done that for you.
We reviewed two systems using almost all of the same components in two different rooms, and I came to the conclusion that there was a synergy among them that produced very fine sounds indeed. Of course both systems' components cost in the upper five figures, but, surprisingly the relative costs of the individual pieces varied considerably from the mean for components of the same type.
What does that mean? Well, the speakers, Beauhorns, were priced in the middle area for high end quality, while the preamp, phono stage and cartridge, all Audio Note Japan products, were at the upper end of cost for their type. And the amps, and speaker cable were reasonably priced. That just goes to show that it's not always the price that counts, but the quality of the equipment, and how they interact.
Which brings us to this month's column. What I wanted to do was determine how each individual piece would sound in my system, with my mix of self-made, one offs, and purchased components. I borrowed components from the distributor for all of these pieces. The three components were a tonearm cable, phono cartridge and a pair of speakers, all from the system reviewed last month. I'll discuss the first two today, and the speakers next month.
1. Audio Note KSL-AN Tonearm
Although the wire had been previously broken in, I ran a signal from the Densen Demag CD through the wire by tying the red-green and blue-white pins together to make sure it was at its optimum. This method allows break-in of the tonearm wire much faster than running the low voltage cartridge signal through it, and spares many hours of cartridge and ear wear. See, there's Tweak Number One for the month. For those who don't believe that wire, and for that matter all components, need current passed through them to break them in, let them lie in their ignorance. Difference in price- $300 for the Van den Hul vs. the $3000 for the Audio-Note. Improvement in sound? Immeasurable.
The biggest difference when using my favorite cartridge until now, (well I guess that gives the review ending away) the Clearaudio Insider Gold (see review by clicking here) which you were supposed to read as part of the above homework assignment) was a further enhancement of low level detail, bringing out the air and hall sound, breathing more life into the sound stage. In addition, the deep bass was more life-like. As the Van Den Hul was my favorite tonearm-phono wire by far until now, I have to say I've crowned a new champ. Screw the "All wires sound the same" crowd. If they couldn't hear this, they'd have to be tone deaf. While not hydrogen bomb-like Earth shattering in difference, it was a significant improvement, and to me, worth the price difference. But then, I'm a perfectionist as far as audio goes, and just about every improvement is worth the price if I can afford it, or not.
2. Kondo KSL IO-J Phono
Setup is extremely easy, as the cartridge body has a line running down its side, which made azimuth alignment and VTA a snap. Recommended tracking force is 1.9 grams, and because it uses an elliptical needle, VTA is important but not as critical as with some of the fancier shapes. Also, the needle doesn't pick up dust and get clogged up as much as with the fancier shapes, and is easily cleaned off.
Included with the cartridge is the ZERODUST STYLUSTIP CLEANER, made in Japan by Onzo Laboratories, http://onzow.hoops.livedoor.com. This is a blob of clear jelly surrounded by a thin membrane on which you touch the needle. For some reason the membrane attracts dust like a magnet, and the softness of the gel allows you to do it without damaging the mechanism. It also comes with a magnifier which is perfect for making sure the needle is clean. Does it work? Almost as well as the best liquid stylus cleaners, without the worry of migration of the liquid up into the cartridge, thus damaging the mechanism. So now, I clean the stylus with a liquid at the beginning of the session, then use the Zerodust the rest of the time. Works like a charm (that's Tweak Number Two for the day).
So here we have a very low output cartridge made of aluminum with an easy to produce elliptical tip on an aluminum stylus without mounting hardware. Sounds like it should be very cheap, doesn't it. Sounds like this would be an entry level moving coil. Well, hold onto your hats. List price is $15000. Of course, this includes the 1 meter tonearm wire-interconnect written about above, ($3000) plus the Zerodust cleaner (price unknown, probably a few dollars). Plus the cartridge is packaged in a beautiful Japanese Yoseki wooden mosaic box, which would be the perfect present for your wife if she finds the bill for the cartridge. Kind of takes your breath away, doesn't it. Well, happily, Steve has dropped the price to $10,000 for the time being, a 33% discount. Unhappily, Mr. Kondo only makes 1-2 of these every two months, so you might have to wait a while for yours.
In addition, one will probably need the Kondo step-up transformer at $7500, truly the best step-up I've heard, unless one has a very good super quiet moving coil phono stage, so there goes the savings plus. Not exactly spare change. Is it worth it? In a word, if you have the cash, yes, YES, YES. I have heard it and fell in love with it in two other systems, and it sounded even more glorious in mine.
I have been using a Clearaudio Insider Gold, a $7500 cartridge, which until now, won the title for the penultimate in record sound reproduction. Please see my review in chapter XV for a full description of the Insider's sound. Both produce the sound stage in such a way that each instrument has its own space surrounded by the hall air. Each gives a three dimensional image almost like a surround sound effect that extends in my system to somewhere behind me. Each gives the strings their sheen, the brass their blatt, the woodwinds their woodiness, the percussion their chest thump. What does the Kondo do better? It magnifies these effects and gives emotion to the sound. Its a cross between the Clearaudio's clarity and truthfulness, and the Crown Jewel's romanticism, a cartridge I reviewed in the same article. The difference is comparable to the difference between SET and push-pull amps. Is it adding something, or glorifying the sound compared to the Clearaudio? Maybe. Do I care? Hell No.
Its greatest strength is the complete eradication of the steeliness and artificiality of other cartridges. While I thought the Clearaudio had done it, in comparison the Audio Note does it better. While I've never heard the Clearaudio Reference, only a $10,000 cartridge, I'd have to say that the Audio Note comes as close as I think possible to the original master tapes.
I was privileged to be able to go to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert this past Friday in Symphony Hall and sat almost dead center in Row D, about 20 feet from the stage, so close that I could see the wrinkles in Conductor Haitink's trousers. (How did I get these tickets? Turned out the salesman was also a French Horn player who had taken lessons from my teacher, just 20 years apart. Sometimes it pays to schmooze. And the tickets were only $47 each, cheaper than the $65 ones beginning one row back. Seems most people don't want to be so close to the stage, but that's just perfect for audiophiles.)
As you can imagine, the soundstage was immense, with each individual soloist standing out in stark relief, the reverb from the Symphony Hall acoustics adding to the whole. The Stravinski Pulcinella Suite allowed each soloist in the small orchestral group to shine. The Halil by Bernstein had a flute soloist who sounded great close up. Don't know how the sound would have carried to the back of the hall, even though Symphony Hall is noted for its acoustics, but I'm sure all of the flute overtones, trills, etc., which make the piece would have been lost. Besides, where are the mikes placed for our precious recordings? The final piece on the program was the Brahm's Second Symphony, a perfect work for the strengths of the BSO and Conductor Haitink. The night before, as a warm-up I had played a Shaded Dog of the Brahm's, first with the Clearaudio, and then with the Audio Note.
Which cartridge came closest to the live sound? I'd have to say the Audionote. Why do I have to say? Because I've decided to purchase it. At almost 300 times the price of a ticket to the BSO, (that's five years worth of concerts) is it worth it? Well, if the Boston traffic were not so bad, and I lived in town, maybe not. But living out in the boonies, with the many great recordings I have on hand, it is to me.
So now, I have to go out and second mortgage my house to purchase it. It's sad that I have fallen back into my Audiolics habit. But then this is Audiolics Anonymous, and all of you can sympathize. Oh well, so I put off retirement for another year. Now it's pushed back to 2010. Heroin or cigarettes may have been cheaper, but at least I've got my health, unless my wife discovers this latest purchase. But that's where the Audio Note's case comes in. A beautiful jewelry box for the little lady. And practically free.
Don't get me wrong. For the price, the Clearaudio is also a great cartridge. Obviously, you get what you pay for. And $15000 is steep for a mid-high end system, never mind just a cartridge and interconnect, but there are CD players out there costing more that don't give as much enjoyment. Hopefully one of these days I'll find a super high end product that won't improve on what I have, so that I can give it a less than wonderful rating. Unhappily for my wallet, that won't happen today. Until next month and the Beauhorn review, Good Listening.